Billy Crystal Speaks Out On Current LGBTQ Roles in Television

In an interview with the Television Critics Association, Billy Crystal expressed some unsympathetic opinions about the gay presence on television. “I’ve seen some stuff recently on TV… where the language or the explicit sex is really too much for me… I see it and I just hope people don’t shove it in our face.”

GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) is a media monitoring organization invested in creating a fair representation of the LGBT experience in the media. On cable, GLAAD counted 64 regular LGBT characters, up from 42 last season. Of those LGBT characters, 44% are women and 34% are people of color. Only one transgender character, Cole on The Fosters, was counted.

Given that LGBT rights have been so prevalent in the news, many believe that the heightened presence is a reflection of Americans’ changing views on the normalcy of same sex couples. In 1934, homosexual roles were introduced in the play The Children’s Hour. The play had great success despite the fact that at the time it was illegal to make any reference to homosexuality on stage. The first kiss between a homosexual couple did not air until 1991 on the show L.A. Law. The show received backlash from advertisers who threatened to pull ads from the network over the scene. Two teenage girls kissed in 1993 on the CBS show Picket Fences, and the network demanded that the scene be reshot in the dark. Not until 1997 was there an open mouth kiss between two women, and in the same year Ellen Degeneres came out on screen.

In contrast, one of the most watched shows this season, How To Get Away with Murder, portrays the intimacy of several same sex couples. In addition, Neil Patrick Harris, an openly gay, male actor, is hosting the Oscars. The popular show Modern Family centers around a gay male couple battling the struggles of family, chlild-raising and partnership, like a normal all-American family.

We have made great leaps as a culture in the media by having such sexual orientation diversity in shows. For this reason, Billy Crystal’s comments received backlash. Nearly every media news source did a piece on the interviews, most of which shamed the actor for his small-minded opinions.

The star’s comment was shocking, given that Crystal played one of the first ever gay characters on television in the show Soap in 1977. GLAAD Media Awards in 2005 Honored Crystal as an actor who portrayed “fair, accurate and inclusive” representations of gay individuals in the media. In 2005, GLAAD Executive Director Joan M. Garry said in a statement, “Billy Crystal …share(s) GLAAD’s commitment to changing hearts and minds through the power of the media. In 1977, Soap brought American audiences the first regularly occurring gay character on network television. Billy Crystal chose to take the role when most actors would not have touched it with a ten-foot pole. As we all know, it certainly did not hurt his career. Today, 27 years later, Billy Crystal still tells our stories.”

After the backlash, Crystal quickly released a statement: “What I meant was that whenever sex or graphic nudity of any kind [gay or straight] is gratuitous to the plot or story it becomes a little too much for my taste.” Crystal’s clarification is in line with the belief that sexual orientation should not be discriminated against. For this reason, I believe we should give him the benefit of the doubt considering the fact that his past experience demonstrates his role as an LGBT ally.

The comment was important because it responded to a question about playing a gay man on television, not a question about sex. For some reason, when asked about the gay experience, the gut reaction is to relate every-day actions to sex. This is why the depiction of a gay experience, one disassociated from the bedroom, is important. By having a heightened gay presence on television, our society is being shown that sexual orientation is a part of someone’s identity, not their whole identity. •